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'The Kings Would Starve'

Thomas Friedman wrote a column for the New York Times this week which, in the process of trumpeting Tom Watson's near-victory at the British Open, questioned whether NBA players would shoot free throws better if, like golf, salary were based completely on performance day-to-day.

Golf is all about individual character. The ball is fixed. No one throws it to you. You initiate the swing, and you alone have to live with the results. There are no teammates to blame or commiserate with. Also, pro golfers, unlike baseball, football or basketball players, have no fixed salaries. They eat what they kill. If they score well, they make money. If they don't, they don't make money. I wonder what the average N.B.A. player's free-throw shooting percentage would be if he had to make free throws to get paid the way golfers have to make three-foot putts?

TrueHoop's Henry Abbott pointed this out and made a most excellent joke about what would happen if the NBA did indeed adopt a more golf-like pay system.

The Kings would starve!

Would they? Time for a thought experiment. How much would each King make if paid according to results in lieu of pre-set salaries?

The league took in $3.6 billion in basketball-related income last season, according to Larry Coon. The collective bargaining agreement has a rule in place to give players a max of 57% of BRI. This season, that was $2 billion. Basketball is a team sport, so let's assign each team's player salary by wins. There were 1,230 regular season wins this year. (Let's ignore the postseason, for the sake of simplicity. Let's imagine there is some extra pot of revenue which can reward players for making and doing well in the playoffs.)

Take each team's win total, divide by total league wins, and take that portion of total player salaries to assess much each team would dole out.

Team Wins % of Lg Wins Tm Salary (in mil)
Cleveland Cavaliers* 66 5.37% 107.32
Los Angeles Lakers* 65 5.28% 105.69
Boston Celtics* 62 5.04% 100.81
Orlando Magic* 59 4.80% 95.93
Portland Trail Blazers* 54 4.39% 87.8
Denver Nuggets* 54 4.39% 87.8
San Antonio Spurs* 54 4.39% 87.8
Houston Rockets* 53 4.31% 86.18
Dallas Mavericks* 50 4.07% 81.3
New Orleans Hornets* 49 3.98% 79.67
Utah Jazz* 48 3.90% 78.05
Atlanta Hawks* 47 3.82% 76.42
Phoenix Suns 46 3.74% 74.8
Miami Heat* 43 3.50% 69.92
Chicago Bulls* 41 3.33% 66.67
Philadelphia 76ers* 41 3.33% 66.67
Detroit Pistons* 39 3.17% 63.41
Indiana Pacers 36 2.93% 58.54
Charlotte Bobcats 35 2.85% 56.91
New Jersey Nets 34 2.76% 55.28
Milwaukee Bucks 34 2.76% 55.28
Toronto Raptors 33 2.68% 53.66
New York Knickerbockers 32 2.60% 52.03
Golden State Warriors 29 2.36% 47.15
Minnesota Timberwolves 24 1.95% 39.02
Memphis Grizzlies 24 1.95% 39.02
Oklahoma City Thunder 23 1.87% 37.4
Washington Wizards 19 1.54% 30.89
Los Angeles Clippers 19 1.54% 30.89
Sacramento Kings 17 1.38% 27.64
TOTALS 1230 100.00% 2000

So the top team by regular season performance -- the Cavs -- would split $107.3 million, while the worst -- our SacraMENTO KINGS! -- would split $27.6 million. Hmm.

How to divy it up? Win Shares, created for baseball by Bill James and calculated for basketball by Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference, would seem to do the trick. Win Shares is not a perfect system, but it's the best currently available, in my estimation.

But we can't have players like Donte Greene and Bobby Brown -- players who finished the season with negative Win Shares -- earning, um, negative salary. (Greene would have owed the Kings $1.5 million this season!) We need a minimum salary. Currently, minimum salary is based on years of service -- the minimum salary for a 10-year vet ($1.3 million) is higher than for a minimum-salaried rookie ($440,000). Let's make it easier and standardize it: $1 million. And let's imagine players who earn only minimum salary do so on the teams they end the season with, unless they are cut. So Brown and Shelden Williams get paid by Minnesota. Let's eliminate Drew Gooden from the equation, but keep Quincy Douby on the books. Lose Will Solomon, because seriously, ta' hell with Will Solomon.

Player WS % of Tm WS Salary
Kevin Martin 4.9 23.22% 6.42
John Salmons 3 14.22% 3.93
Jason Thompson 2.8 13.27% 3.67
Brad Miller 2.6 12.32% 3.41
Francisco Garcia 2.4 11.37% 3.14
Beno Udrih 1.3 6.16% 1.7
Bobby Jackson 1.2 5.69% 1.57
Andres Nocioni 0.9 4.27% 1.18
Rashad McCants 0.9 4.27% 1.18
Mikki Moore 0.8 3.79% 1.05
Spencer Hawes 0.8 3.79% 1.05
Ike Diogu 0.6 2.84% 0.79
Kenny Thomas 0.1 0.47% 0.13
Calvin Booth 0.1 0.47% 0.13
Cedric Simmons -0.1 -0.47% -0.13
Quincy Douby -0.1 -0.47% -0.13
Donte Greene -1.1 -5.21% -1.44
TOTAL 21.1 100.00% 27.64

So we have six players who would qualify for the minimum salary (although Ike Diogu, on the backs of three f'n games, nearly earned his $1 million ... unbelievable). Let's say the league pays the difference between salary owed from the team's share and minimum salary. Kevin Martin shouldn't have to help pay for Greene's performance, in other words.

Exactly one King would benefit from the golf system: Jason Thompson, who would go from $1.9 million to $3.7 million. Kevin Martin would lose more than $2 million, John Salmons would come out a little ahead based on his Chicago share, Spencer Hawes would lose half his salary, Francisco Garcia would lose $2 million, Beno Udrih would lose some $4 million. And of course, ol' Kenny Thomas would get murdered by this system.

So the players wouldn't exactly starve, but they wouldn't be earning nearly as much as they do under the current system. Meanwhile, a player like LeBron James would make a killing: $32.7 million. Dwyane Wade would have made $23 million. It's a system which could never work without completely destroying and rebuilding the NBA as we know it, but if you destroyed and rebuilt the NBA as we know it, it might work. It's certainly the boldest revenue sharing suggestion I've ever seen.


Back to Friedman's column for a second: I must say it's the first time I've heard it argued that golf is a less privileged sport than basketball. It'd be interesting to see a study breaking down how much golf earnings are won by hot streaks as opposed to continued brilliance, in comparison with the NBA, where generally speaking the best veteran players earn the most money. An odd argument for Friedman to make, surely.